On this penultimate weekend of the Six Nations there are still four teams contesting the title, but it’s Ireland in pole position despite their narrow defeat at Twickenham in round three. Leading the championship race on points difference, Joe Schmidt’s Ireland will look to take advantage of their home game against Italy this weekend with a tougher fixture in Paris to come on what should be a thrilling final Saturday.
Italy, without a win this campaign, were unlucky losers last time out against Scotland, Duncan Weir landing a late drop goal which left the Azzurri at the bottom of the standings and likely to receive the wooden spoon.
A mix of continuity and respect for their Italian opposition means that Joe Schmidt refuses the opportunity to tinker with his squad, making just one enforced change to the starting XV and two in the replacements.
Erring on the side of caution, Peter O’Mahony is not risked as he recovers from a minor hamstring tweak and Iain Henderson takes his place at blindside. The young Ulsterman has primarily been used as a second row but his athleticism and versatility, as well as his ability in the lineout mean there won’t be much disruption to the pack.
With Henderson promoted to the first team, Rhys Ruddock will join no less than six provincial teammates as Leinster dominate the replacements. Amongst those, Eoin Reddan is recalled after proving his fitness with Isaac Boss given a break.
Joe Schmidt’s reasoning for sticking with largely the same squad is sound, but one can’t help but think he’s missed any opportunity to rotate in a few positions which wouldn’t have compromised their ability to beat Italy.
In the front row, either Jack McGrath or Martin Moore might have benefitted by starting, and it wouldn’t have been a huge risk to give Paddy Jackson an opportunity with Sexton, given the all clear by the medical team, potentially in reserve.
Italy head coach Jacques Brunel has been dealt a double blow ahead of the Aviva clash with both Alessandro Zanni and key man Sergio Parisse unavailable. Parisse has been unable to train this week, and is rested ahead of their Rome finale against England. Robert Barbieri instead starts at number eight, and Marco Bortolami will captain the side.
Brunel has made four changes to his starting XV. Halfbacks Tito Tebaldi and Luciano Orquera replace Edoardo Gori and Tommaso Allan, while Paul Derbyshire starts in a reshuffled back row, alongside Josh Furno of Biarritz and Treviso’s Barbieri, which could be in for a difficult afternoon against a strong Irish unit.
Andrea Masi has to settle for a return as a replacement which means that Luke McLean continues at fullback, and Gonzalo Garcia again partners Michele Campagnaro in the midfield. Angelo Esposito and Leonardo Sarto will look to pose a threat from the wings.
In the pack Alberto de Marchi, Leonardo Ghiraldini and Martin Castrogiovanni will provide a tern test of the Irish front row, and Quintin Geldenhuys locks down beside stand-in skipper Bortolami in the second row.
All Eyes On
You shouldn’t be in any doubt as to who will be the centre of attention on Saturday. It has been a championship of ‘lasts’ for Brian O’Driscoll, but this is the most significant farewell. Not only will it be his last home Irish international, but he’ll become the most capped international of all time surpassing George Gregan on his 140th test appearance. That there’s a game to be played is almost an afterthought.
Without Parisse the Italians are significantly weakened. Stepping into his boots is 29 year old barrel-chested Robert Barbieri. Canadian born Barbieri has 33 test caps and over 100 appearances for Treviso so he’s not exactly a novice but still faces a huge task deputising for Parisse. It remains to be seen whether he can fill that void.
Head to head: Iain Henderson v Josh Furno
Josh Furno has arguably stood out as Italy’s most impressive performer in the Six Nations this year, and although, like Henderson, he is more accustomed to playing in the second row, his move to blindside flanker shouldn’t prove too much of a hindrance for a player of his ball carrying ability and he’ll provide a good option in the lineout. It will certainly be a physical battle between the two sixes, Furno and Henderson are both over 6’6’’ and 250 lbs plus.
For Iain Henderson, making his second international start, it’s a chance to press a claim for inclusion against France. Still only, 22 year the young Ulster lock has benefitted from early exposure at a high level with his province, taking each opportunity and experience in his stride. He’d be advised to grab this opportunity with both hands, and he may never look back from it.
With Joe Schmidt reluctant to risk rotation Ireland should be comfortable winners, even more so because Italy seemingly have one eye on a grand finale against England in Rome. The loss of Sergio Parisse and Alessandro Zanni is a huge blow to their chances of being competitive especially considering how strong Ireland are in the back row.
It would be naive to think that Italy will just roll over, but realistically Ireland should look to be in the clear after an hour if not before, and with the championship set to be decided on points difference, they’re unlikely to let up in the final quarter. If they’re accurate and clinical, it could be a rout. Ireland by 20.
By David Blair (@viscount_dave)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images